- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about the diagnosis
- When a sibling has cancer
When a sibling has cancer
The siblings of children with cancer sometimes feel forgotten in the midst of a diagnosis. Parental attention is suddenly shifted, and daily routines, family roles and family responsibilities can change for a while.
Along with feelings of sadness, fear and anxiety, siblings may be struggling with more complicated emotions such as guilt, jealousy, resentment and anger. Because so much focus is on their brother or sister, they may feel that their needs do not deserve to be met and that they have no right to complain.
For many children and teenagers, fitting in with their peers is very important. This means they may feel embarrassed or self-conscious about their family now being different to other families. Some may be reluctant to tell their friends and teachers about the situation at home. If cancer changes how their brother or sister looks, they may feel embarrassed and shy away from being seen with their sibling.
You can help your children adjust to the changes in your family by talking openly and honestly. The tips listed opposite under When another child has cancer will help, but your kids may also be reassured to know the following:
It’s not their fault
Check that siblings realise that they did not cause their brother or sister’s cancer – even if they had been fighting with them or thinking mean thoughts about them.
What they can do
Explain that they can help support their brother or sister, and let them think about how they would like to do that. The sibling relationship is still important, so try to offer plenty of opportunities to maintain it. This may involve regular visits to the hospital and/or regular contact via phone, email or social media.
It is okay to have fun
Even though the child with cancer has to have a lot of attention at the moment, the needs of their siblings matter too. As far as possible, they should keep doing their own activities and have time for fun.
They are still just as loved
Explain to siblings that you may need to spend a lot of time and energy focused on the child with cancer, but this is out of necessity rather than feeling any less love for your other children. Naming the challenges and acknowledging the impact can really help.
They will always be looked after
Let them know that you will make sure someone is always there to look after them. Talk to them about who they would like that person to be if you can’t be there yourself.
“My third child, Leo, was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was five years old. We didn’t tell the kids straightaway – we needed time to digest the news ourselves. I couldn’t even tell my parents.
Leo knew he was sick because he felt so sick. We told him he was in the best place and that the doctors and nurses would help to make him better. That was enough at first.
Because Leo’s siblings were such different ages, I told them individually, but the key messages were the same: Leo hadn’t done anything to cause the leukaemia, it’s not contagious, and he would get well – it was important to offer hope. I told them that Leo would look different because of the treatment and that it would take a long while.
We wanted all the kids to feel involved with Leo’s treatment – we said, ‘You are part of the team, you are part of this.’ The hospital became part of our family life.”
Genevieve, mother of four children aged 3, 5, 10 and 14
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
We thank the reviewers of this book: Professor Kate White, Chair of Nursing, The University of Sydney, NSW; Sarah Ellis, Psychologist, Behavioural Sciences Unit, Kids with Cancer Foundation, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Chandra Franken, Program Manager – NSW & ACT, Starlight Children’s Foundation, NSW; John Friedsam, General Manager of Divisions, CanTeen, NSW; Keely Gordon-King, Cancer Counselling Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Stephanie Konings, Research Officer, CanTeen, NSW; Sally and Rosie Morgan, Consumers; Dr Pandora Patterson, General Manager, Research and Youth Cancer Services, Canteen, and Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, The University of Sydney, NSW and Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Coventry University, UK; Suzanne Rumi, Consumer; Michael Sieders, Primary School Program Manager, Camp Quality.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founding Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8 -11, Different views of cancer; page 24, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; pages 26 -27, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30 -31, Prepare for hospital and treatment centre visits; and page 37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8 -11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, Children’s Hospital Westmead, for her contribution on page 18, When another child has cancer; Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 38, Spending one-on-one time; and Dr Ranjana Srivastava, and The Guardian for permission to adapt €œHow do you tell your children you have cancer? €_x009d_, on pages 21 and 47 – full story is available at https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/29/how-do-you-tell-your-children-you-have-cancer.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Coping with cancer?
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Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment